It's been 300 years since the first completed part of St. Paul's Cathedral opened and 75 years since the BBC began broadcasting. To mark the latter and to make a nod to the former tonight on BBC television and Radio we were treated to a live broadcast of a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius with Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra with Phillip Langridge, Cathrine Wyn-Rogers and Alistair Miles.
The orchestra and chorus were assembled beneath the dome and Andrew Davis himself stood on the memorial in the centre of the floor to Christopher Wren himself, thus seeming to marry together Elgar's masterpiece with Wren's and giving the television director ample opportunity to blend the music and the image together, made even more tangible by the effect on the music of the cavernous acoustic. This latter worked marvelously in the grandeur and power of "Praise To The Holiest" and in the driving clamour of the Demon's Chorus, but it perhaps detracted somewhat in the more intimate passages, especially the exchanges between Gerontius and the Angel at the start of Part II.
Phillip Langridge sang Gerontius and no finer interpretation has this Elgarian ever heard. Here was a realisation of the role in the tradition of its greatest interpreter, Heddle Nash. Gerontius is a simple, straightforward man, tormented by the agonies of death and then transformed as his own soul. Langridge's simplicity of delivery – never forcing, sometimes childlike, latterly ecstatic, but never arch or vainglorious – will stick in my mind for a very long time. It's a long part and often cruelly exposed, but he seemed to be as fresh at the end of "Take Me Away" as he was at "Jesu Maria, I am near to death." And with what security too. A vast audience, television lights and cameras carrying his performance out live, and there was never so much as a blink of imprecision.
Cathrine Wyn-Rogers has, for me, too light a voice for the Angel. I prefer a true contralto (or Janet Baker.) Don't misunderstanding me, this was an eloquent rendition of the Angel with a very wide range of emotion and tone. I just wish I could have heard more chest notes and even more darkness in her voice, especially in the passages where she warns Gerontius of his coming torments both from Heaven and from Hell.
Alistair Miles was a disappointment. He delivered his Priest at the close of Part I ("Go forth upon thy journey….") from the very pulpit itself, but his voice was too light to be really commanding. The last time the BBC did a television version of this work they had John Shirley-Quirk for the two bass parts and there WAS a voice. (They also had Peter Pears and Janet Baker with Sir Adrian Boult in Canterbury Cathedral, but that is another story.)
The passage at the start of Part II is surely one of the greatest Elgar ever wrote. It must convey a feeling of air and weightlessness as Gerontius, his earthly life behind him, "wakes" into his new awareness as a soul. This the strings of the BBC SO managed with sublime ease. The acoustic helped here also, as must have Davis's meticulous care in balancing the parts. This was the case throughout, by the way, with small details attended to, but nothing ever being allowed to obtrude and detract from the developing drama.
And drama there is in Part II. No sooner have the soul of Gerontius and the Angel become acquainted than we are off across the grilles of Hell where Demons hunt for souls to take to damnation. This chorus must have been quite daring in 1900. Today it needs a special charge for it to make any kind of shock effect. Davis came close. Though his wasn't as purely evil as I have sometimes heard it done. The "Ha-Has" of the demons were just a bit restrained, for example. For real evil listen to Barbirolli's 1964 recording where he gets his singers to really growl.
When the Demons have vanished the stillness from the start of Part II returns and it must be as if nothing has happened: that the Demons were just a nightmare from which we have woken. That is just as it sounded here. But now there must also be a sense of a slow building up to the next great climax. After Gerontius has asked if he will see his God, only to be told by the Angel that he will, for an instant of time, but that this will both gladden and pierce him, we hear a sound in the orchestra that Gerontius says is "like the rushing of the wind, the Summer wind among the lofty pines." Again, I was struck by Andrew Davis's care for orchestral detail. Perhaps he remembered that Elgar was himself recalling a memory from his own youth of the Summer wind among tall pines.
In the vast spaces of St. Paul's the ethereal chorus, the courts of light chanting the first appearance of "Praise to the Holiest", sent shivers down this Elgarian's back. I know of no greater passage in all of Elgar's music than this one as, inexorably, like petals in the current of the river, we are carried with Gerontius to one of the greatest moments in all choral music: the visceral burst of sound at "Praise To The Holiest". To those who love Elgar's music this passage reaches perhaps deeper than any other and Andrew Davis's restraint only added to the power and beauty of this great moment. The temptation is to either take it too slowly or too fast. Davis took the admirable middle course and all was well. But a word of thanks to the organist whose contribution, aided by some lovely balancing by the BBC engineer, gave an edge that is often missing.
By now Alistair Miles had moved to the front of the orchestra for the short passage as Angel of the Agony. I still would have preferred a deeper, more resonant, even frightening voice for this passage, but it was good at least to hear every word clearly.
The approach by Gerontius to the presence of God was delivered with a little more urgency than usual. Too often the conductor takes this passage like something out of a Hammer horror film and ruins the effect. Davis seemed to stitch it seamlessly into the drama and the sudden crash of every instrument playing as loud as possible for the split second that God gazes on Gerontius made its usual point. The sudden jump cut to a camera high up in the Whispering Gallery was appropriate also.
"Take Me Away", where Gerontius realises that purgatory must precede paradise, was delivered by Langridge with ecstatic power. I did admire the way, at the end of his long evening, he didn't find the need to shout anywhere.
It would need the crassest of performers to ruin the Angel's Farewell so that was never going to happen tonight and Catherine Wyn-Rogers's lightness of voice at last did come into its own. "Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow," she sings to Gerontius as she lowers his soul into the waters, "swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here and I will wake thee on the morrow". And I believed her which is all that needs to be said.
On the manuscript of this work Elgar wrote something from John Ruskin: "This is the best of me." Beneath Andrew Davis's feet tonight were words dedicated to Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's: "If you seek a memorial, look around." It struck me that these two sets of words could have been interchangeable whilst these two masterworks (cathedral and oratorio) of these two great Englishmen (Wren and Elgar) were joined together tonight. The Dream of Gerontius was the last work performed in the old Queen's Hall before it was bombed during the London Blitz. Saint Paul's, famously, survived that same bombing campaign. Appropriate then that it should have been here that the BBC chose to mark its anniversary with this work.
Copyright © 1999, Tony Duggan